There is a point to this blog post, but I really don’t get to it until towards the end. I have to set up the story first : ) And yeah, it is a long post, so sue me.
When I was young and first introduced to science fiction, it set my imagination on fire and I developed a voracious appetite for reading. Even today, there are few things I enjoy as much as curling up somewhere quiet and reading a book. I’ll read just about anything I can get my hands on, but I particularly enjoy science fiction, especially classic stuff that no one reads any more. Of course the plot lines and the stories themselves were fun and engaging, but what really captivated me was the wondrous sense of what the future could hold. I used to spend hours imagining what it would be like exploring new worlds, traversing through space in a ship, transferring my intelligence into a computer, gaining cybernetics that offered superhuman abilities, teleporting from one place to another, and so much more.
TV shows and movies contributed to this as well…Star Trek, Star Wars, Logan’s Run, Buck Rogers, Bladerunner, Dune, This Island Earth, Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, Brainstorm, The Forbidden Planet, Outland, and of course, TRON.
As I grew a bit older, my imaginary adventures matured and I started contemplating how the cool things in the future could be made, how they could be done. What was first wonder, excitement, and anticipation, became an impatient restlessness. I didn’t want to wait…if no one else was going to do it, maybe I needed to be the one to figure this stuff out and make it happen. Still though, I was fairly young and the practical realities of life needed to be dealt with…high school, some college, a job, etc. At some point after working a couple of years (with only one year of college) as a detective for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), I decided that I wanted to make more money and do something that I loved, so I opened up a comic book store with a very good friend of mine.
This was a pretty amazing time as I could not only indulge myself with a huge range of comics in many genres, both mainstream and the edgier independents, but we also did a fair bit with role-playing games, anime, and collectibles. I already had a good bit of a background with RPGs, but my new exposure to anime here was pretty mind opening. It made a lot of western cartoons look like crass junk, and the sophistication of some of the stories rivaled classic literature. Unfortunately though, the industry decided to kill off Superman right as we were nearing the first anniversary of the store, and our business tanked.
This is where things get interesting though. Towards the end here, I met a guy that was a specialist in virtual reality (VR) and he was trying to get a startup off the ground. We featured some of his tech in the store which was awesome, but as we were closing the business, he offered me a job. Holy cow! A job making games for a virtual reality company. I jumped on it. My adventure here, and what happened later is a tale for another day, but getting back to the point of this post, I was suddenly immersed in a real-cutting edge company that was literally trying to invent the future. I discovered Neuromancer and other works by William Gibson. Mind blown.
All of this together made me realize that I wanted to be a technologist, an entrepreneur, and dare I say it, a visionary. Everything suddenly seemed possible and doable. I could find like-minded people, I could write a business plan, I could find investors, and I could build somethingthat no one else had tried or thought of. Ideas were easy, I had lots of them (and I still do today, tons of em), but something compelling, ambitious, and visionary was the hard part. I could do it though…I had a taste of it with this VR company. As young as I was (early 20s) and without a college education, I was still smart and savvy enough to keep up with people 10 and 15 years more experienced than I was, and still bring innovative and creative thoughts and concepts to the table.
In 1995 I relocated to Raleigh North Carolina (at the time, this was emerging as the “East Coast Silicon Valley) to strike out on my own. We were going to build the world’s first real-time 3D massively multi-user online role-playing game. I was excited, eager, and my passion for it was through the roof (even now, I’m still the same about technology and startups).
I really felt like I was becoming the visionary I so desperately wanted to be when I was a kid. Some people I met got really excited. I was called a pioneer of internet gaming, a technological wunderkind, a genius (I’m smart, but I wouldn’t go that far), and much more. On the other hand, I met tons of people that said things like “PCs can’t do real-time 3D”, “people will never play (or pay) for games on the internet”, “3D virtual worlds are useless and just a fad”, “people won’t be able to understand what an avatar is”, “you are too young to start a company” [Note: no joke. This was in the mid-90’s and I was in my mid 20s.]. The list goes on. The more “practical” types were concerned that I was too “visionary” and had my heads in the cloud about what was possible to do technically and what was conceivable in terms of industry trends and business/revenue models. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the notion that visionary was a bad word. You can’t be a successful entrepreneur and be a visionary at the same time.
I built a team, brought in some investors, and was in the middle of negotiating an international publishing deal as well as a venture deal, when things blew up. I learned a very hard lesson about people, personalities, and the absolute critical nature of picking the right team. I was shattered and devastated when it all went to hell, but that didn’t stop me from trying again. And again. And again. It is in my blood. I’m pretty sure I’ll be launching another startup when I’m 97. Screw you if you think fundable entrepreneurs can’t be older than 25. You know, after this first horrible experience as a tech startup founder, when I was working on the next company to start, two of my friends actually staged an intervention. My girlfriend threatened to break up with me if I persisted in the ridiculous notion of starting another company, and both she and one of my best friends at the time strongly suggested I get counseling from a therapist. That was a fun conversation.
I had proven then, and a couple of times since, that it is indeed possible to be a visionary, and at the same time be capable of building a team, a product, a company, and getting something to market. Sure, sometimes I am a little early to the show in terms of emerging technologies (virtual reality, mmorpgs, augmented reality, and much more), but that is part of being a visionary and a pioneer, isn’t it?
Even so, at some point somewhere, I betrayed my own ideals and self-confidence, shunning and going out of my way to avoid being labeled a visionary. Sure, when it did happen, I was secretly pleased and happy, but I knew that the label could be a scarlet letter or a brand. In “conventional” wisdom, a so-called visionary or “idea guy” needed some dour grey beard MBA or accountant to be the “adult supervision” or, preferably, the CEO. I couldn’t have it both ways and be able to bring the idea to life in the way that it should be, and at the same time do the other things necessary to fund the company and grow it.
These days (now that my beard has some grey in it) I hear other things from people like “what if someone else does it first?”, “ideas are a dime a dozen”, “that technology is just a fad, people will never use it”, or “that concept is too big, why don’t you just build an app”, and my personal favorite “why don’t you just get a normal job?”.
I’ve been thinking recently about what on one hand feels like a total lack of innovation, creativity, and real vision in the tech industry, or the same in politics (the state of our space program is a national shame in my opinion), while at the same time a sense that there are some glimmers of hope…augmented reality, virtual reality, the internet of things, computer vision, drones, self-driving cars, 3D printing, and so forth. I want to embrace the label of visionary again and go do something amazing, but there are so few people these days willing to take the risk either with their time, or with their investment capital.
This past weekend I was considering all of this and thinking about the difference between a good idea (a dime a dozen, remember) and a real vision, or rather, what makes someone a visionary? I believe that being a visionary isn’t about having a good idea, or even a great idea. Anyone can come up with those. A visionary, in my mind, is someone that not only has a good idea, but also has the ability to see the bigger picture. How do all the puzzle pieces fit together, how to define the roadmap to get there, and the process of how to make it a reality. It has to be realistic and doable.
The idea isn’t enough. A visionary sees beyond that and grasps not only the implications of what can be done but also how it should be done. This is the difference between an idea and a vision. Ideas are easy, vision is hard. The hardest though, is turning vision into reality. That takes an extraordinary amount of sheer force of will, the right team, and funding.
Don’t settle for just an idea. Don’t let people tell you it can’t be done. If you are going to throw your life, your blood, and your soul into a risky endeavor like a startup, make it a good one. Do something worthwhile and big. Why settle for flying kites when you can aim for the moon?
Even as I write that though, I feel like I should balance it with this thought…keep your head in the clouds, but keep your feet on the ground. Having a glorious destination is nice, but if you don’t plan well (and logically) on how to get there, one step at a time, you fail at being a visionary, you are just a dreamer.
Now, go do something awesome.
PS Do me a favor and leave a comment or share this if this post means anything to you or hopefully inspires you to go do something. On the other hand, you could just leave a note if you think I'm a nutcase. Either way, the feedback is appreciated.